Does Virginia Higher-Ed Discriminate against Asians?

The Students for Fair Admissions, an Arlington-based non-profit group, has made waves recently with its lawsuit charging that Harvard University discriminates against Asian-Americans in its admissions process.

The lawsuit asserts that the university administers what amounts to an illegal quota system, in which roughly the same percentage of African-Americans, Hispanics, whites and Asian-Americans are admitted year after year, despite fluctuations in application rates and qualification, reports the New York Times. Numerous academic studies have shown that Asian-Americans have to achieve significantly higher SAT scores than other groups to gain admission to many elite universities.

The controversy got me to thinking — do similar admissions biases exist at Virginia’s top universities? The University of Virginia, the College of William & Mary, and Virginia Tech aren’t as elite as the Ivy League schools, but they are highly regarded and they do recruit students nationally. Asian students in Virginia schools consistently out-perform other racial categories in Virginia high schools. Are they fairly represented or under-represented in Virginia’s top colleges?

That’s hard to say for sure. I can’t find any data online providing average SAT scores broken down by race for any of the three universities. (I conjecture that such data is suppressed precisely to avoid the kinds of accusations made by Students for Fair Admissions.)

But the institutions do provide a breakdown of enrollment by race and ethnicity. At the top of the post, you can view the 2016 enrollment numbers for Asian and Pacific-American students. The percentages at each institution are higher than the percentage of the Asian population in Virginia — 6.5% as of 2015 — as a whole.

But how do enrollments compare to the Asian percentage of college-bound students? According to the College Board, 5,389 college-bound students of Asian origin took the SAT exams in 2016, accounting for 9% of Virginia’s college-bound population. By that yardstick, W&M at 8.7% in-state Asian enrollment appears to have an under-represented Asian population, while UVa and Virginia Tech are comfortably above.

But the story doesn’t stop there. Asian-Americans out-perform other racial/ethnic groups academically. The average reading + math SAT score for Virginia Asian-Americans was 1,145 in 2016. That compared to 1,037 for all Virginia students. Colleges and universities consider factors other than SAT scores, of course, such as grades, student rank in high school, and extracurricular activities. All other things being equal, however, the superior SAT performance by Asians suggests that they should be represented at Virginia’s elite institutions in numbers greater than the percentage taking the SATs.

What numbers would represent a bias-free admission percentage for Asians? The data that I could find isn’t granular enough to make a firm judgment, although a scientific wild-ass guess suggests that UVa, where Asians account for 18.2% of in-state first-year students, is very receptive to Asian admissions, Virginia Tech (12.7) moderately receptive, and William & Mary (8.7%) bears a closer look.

That’s just a rough cut. It’s impossible to dig deeper without seeing the average SAT scores of Asians and other racial/ethnic groups admitted to each institution. Getting that data, I suspect, will be like prying teeth from a dragon.